If your goal is to run a faster race, here’s what the pros suggest.
When it comes to marathon training advice, you can’t get much more cliché than “slow and steady wins the race.” But if you’ve ever run a marathon yourself, or gone to watch a big race and cheered on the marathoners, you’ll see that this often really rings true as far as race day execution is concerned.
Every recreational distance runner I know would probably say they have trained too fast at some point in their running career. I’m certainly guilty of this myself. After my first marathon in 2010, I set a goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon. While this certainly isn’t something that’s impossible to achieve, it was too aggressive a goal for my racing and training level at the time. Although I did initially make some gains (including my first sub-four-hour marathon finish!), piling on too much too soon landed me with back-to-back injuries and put me behind further in reaching that goal (which is still at the top of my running bucket list, by the way).
A silver lining, I suppose, is that I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on this and eventually adopt smarter training practices to finally start seeing big results. The most important thing I learned is that just training faster and harder isn’t the best way to actually be a faster runner.
So what is? Although I have nearly 15 years of long-distance running experience under my belt, I’m not exactly an expert—so I decided to talk with experienced, professional running coaches to find out what exactly they recommend for people who are trying to become a faster runner for their next long-distance race.
1. Embrace the power of slow runs.
A common mistake that new or less-seasoned long-distance runners make is taking the effort they’ve put into their fastest 5K or 10K times and attempting to execute those paces for their half or full marathon training runs.
“Runners who do this usually have the idea that they want to see how long they can keep a certain pace, and while they will initially see improvements, it oftentimes just leads to burnout and injuries,” Andre Laboy, a coach with the Run S.M.A.R.T. Project, a group of certified coaches led by exercise scientist Jack Daniels, Ph.D. in New York City, tells SELF.
“Doing this is actually more likely going to get you a first-class ticket to overtraining,” adds Tawnee Gibson, M.S., C.S.C.S., a certified running and U.S. triathlon coach in Laguna Beach, California, and host of the Endurance Planet podcast. “It’s really hard to get new athletes to avoid getting down on themselves when told to run slowly, but I can’t stress it any harder: Slowing down during long-distance training doesn’t make you a failure; it actually makes you a very smart athlete,” she tells SELF.
Running slowly during long runs helps you ease your body into the increased stress of running longer, which is key for avoiding injuries and burnout. It’s also the best way to improve endurance—or ability to last through a long-distance race like a marathon—which is an important foundation to build before working on speed.
Laboy advises his athletes to run their easy and long runs about 45 seconds to one minute slower than their marathon goal pace. The idea behind this is that you’re improving your fitness while ensuring that you’re recovering the next day (versus taking several days or more to recover, as you would following a race-pace marathon). According to Laboy, the best way to tell if you are running easy enough is to check to see if you can comfortably and easily hold a conversation. “You should be able to tell your running buddy a story about something that happened last night without gasping for air,” he says. “If not, you should definitely slow down.”
2. Determine your VDOT score.
The Run S.M.A.R.T. Project’s Web site features a free race and training pace calculator based on the Jack Daniels VDOT methodology of measuring your current running ability. A runner’s VDOT is a score given based on how he or she did in a recent race. Based on your recent race finish time, the calculator will tell you the appropriate pace for various distances, which is helpful if you like having specific pace targets while training. The calculator also allows athletes to see how much they should adjust their paces when training at altitude or when the temperatures and humidity levels soar.
“Lots of coaches use this score when determining a runner’s correct workout paces or equivalent race performances and implement proper training paces without having their athletes do a VO2 max test (which measures the maximum volume of oxygen an athlete can use),” Laboy tells SELF. “If a runner has no idea what their score is, they can run a race where they are attempting to run their fastest time possible and put that performance into the calculator to assist in coming up with appropriate marathon training practices and goals.” In other words, by the time the marathon comes along, you’ll have a pretty good idea of which pace group to join.
3. Take social media posts with a grain of salt.
Social media is a common culprit as far as contributing to self-sabotaging practices like running too fast in training.
“Don’t get caught up in what your friends are doing,” Laboy says. “That Strava or Instagram post likely doesn’t tell the whole story, and while you’re over there comparing yourself to someone else who supposedly makes their similar goals look almost ‘too easy,’ they may well be pushing themselves too hard in that workout and not actually training appropriately. It’s important to remember that you’re training for yourself and not for anyone else.”
Gibson echoes that sentiment, adding that if looking at social media causes you to easily fall into a comparison trap and question your self-worth, it’s probably best to simply take a break from it as far as logging your training is concerned.
4. Consider “runplugging.”
On a personal level, I can attest to the fact that ditching my headphones and music cold turkey has made a huge difference when it comes to running smartly during marathon training. Although music can be motivating, it’s natural to match your running pace to the beat of the music rather than running at the perfect training pace for you. Not only that, there’s no mistaking that it’s safer to be completely aware of your surroundings on a run, regardless of the type of running workout you’ve got planned on a given day.
Laboy also recommends not being overly reliant on GPS watches and technology, but rather using them more for of an “after the fact” review of your workouts. “It’s key to practice how things should feel and use yourself and your body to judge what a good effort is rather than your watch,” he says.
5. If you’re new to long-distance running, focus on target heart rate instead of pace.
Gibson always has her athletes focus on target heart rate training rather than pace, especially in the initial weeks and months of marathon training. She advises new runners to find their “happy starting pace” by using Dr. Phil Maffetone’s Maximum Aerobic Function method to find their ideal aerobic training heart rate, and running two to four miles while maintaining this heart rate. Maffetone, a renowned researcher and expert in exercise physiology and biofeedback, put together the formula—subtract your age from 180—to give people an idea of the heart rate that will help them perform aerobic exercise optimally.
According to the 180 formula, if you are 35 years old, you should aim to keep your heart rate around 145 beats per minute. There are also ways to modify the number to account for other health and fitness factors an individual person may face. For example, if you have or are recovering from a major illness or are on any regular medication, you subtract an additional 10. (You can find more details on the formula here.)
“This is the highest heart rate you want to train at to develop aerobic fitness, and I truly believe it is the safest way for new runners to train,” Gibson says. “With pace-based training, it’s really easy to let your ego get in the way, but with heart rate training, it’s much easier to slow down once you understand the science behind it.”
After a few months, you will be able to gradually increase your speed and see that you can hold a faster pace at the same heart rate. That’s the point where Gibson and her athletes will start about talking goal times and adding in training runs that target that specific pace.
6. Incorporate speed workouts and race-pace runs into your training.
Speed workouts and faster, shorter intervals play an important role in improving running economy (how much oxygen you use for energy while running) and form, Laboy says. He often recommends runners do a few miles of their long runs at marathon goal pace, or even a shorter long run—like 10 to 13 miles—entirely at marathon goal pace. (Pretty much any training plan will call for some form of intervals or race-pace training. Check out the plans offered by Runner’s World or expert marathon coach Hal Higdon if you’re new to half-marathon or marathon training.)
“Some common feedback that I get is clients saying ‘I don’t think I can do this’ when practicing their race pace after mostly running slow and easy, but I remind them of the scene at their race—they’re likely going to be racing in ideal conditions on a flatter course than they trained on, there will be water stations at their disposal, and people cheering them on most of the way,” he says. “Race day is when you have to shift your brain from training and focus on the moment at hand. That’s the time to run off feel and see what happens. If you’ve trained properly, you’ll more than likely be surprised by how great the result is.”